Higuchi Yuko is an artist who paints cats, mushrooms and little girls with quite an original touch. She lives alongside her beloved cat named Boris. Higuchi has worked on numerous collaborative projects with brands such as Holbein, Emily Temple cute, UNIQLO, Shiseido, ninita, MELANTRICK FEMLIGHET and AHCAHCUM. When painting cats, she naturally uses Boris as the model. We interviewed her to learn more about the cat-motif in painting cats as well as to gain insights into her live with a cat.
Boris, a premature kitten
– How did your life with Boris begin?
“When I used to live with my parents, we had many cats. So when the time came for me to move out and live on my own, I looked for an apartment that allowed pets. I didn’t have any preference as to what kind of cat I actually wanted, so I was pretty much thinking that I’d take whichever cat I first encountered. Then by accident, I discovered a poster that said foster homes for cats were needed. It turned out that Boris’s mother, who was a stray, had been hit by a car. The person who rescued her was the one who had put up the poster. The kittens were inside the mother when she was injured by the car, so Boris was born prematurely. When I met Boris for the first time, he was about a month and a half old and extremely small. There was one other kitten that was very large in size, so I was worried if Boris could survive. I told the woman that I would come back to pick Boris up when he became three months old and no longer dependent on his mother. So I waited a while and eventually went to pick him up.”
– Having been surrounded by cats as a child, I imagine you were already accustomed to living with cats.
“At our peak, I think we had about 6 or 7 cats. However, they were all females. Boris was actually my first male cat. So I was very surprised to see how different his personality was than the cats I had previously known. Boris was initially kind of vicious. He would run around and punch me and give me an overall hard time. Because there were so many cats at my folks’ house, I never really had the chance to communicate with a single feline to such an extent. So to me he exists in a completely different form compared to other cats. He comes to me at full blast when he wants my attention. We had a baby a few years after Boris came into our lives, so I guess that was also major change for him, too.”
Using the cat as a motif
– We see a lot of cats in your work.
“I didn’t originally intend to paint so many cats. It was just another motif – the same as birds or mushrooms. However, orders requesting cats started to pour in from all the companies that sold my designs. I guess the cat-motif has a strong impact on people. I do a lot of human portraits, too, but I guess my cat-related works have a stronger appeal. It’s funny, a lot of people think I only paint cats (laughs). At first I didn’t have a cat model. However, I’ve recently used Boris, Sabami, and some of the other beloved cats kept by my network of friends.”
– Is it easy to paint cats?
“It’s not any easier than other motifs. However, since I have painted so many of them, I’m accustomed to painting them now. Nowadays, I don’t even look at cat photos or Boris. I just paint them based on the balance I’m used to. The positioning of their eyes and nose, giving them rounder backs of heads than actual cats have – I guess I have my own style for depicting them. I had a chance to take see some works done by a fan of my paintings, and they resembled the cats in my paintings. I first thought that cats would come out the same no matter who painted them, but I guess my cats have their own characteristics.”
– Are there any points you pay special attention to when painting cats?
“For collaborations with major companies, they request them to be as cute as possible. So I make them rounder or give them bigger pupils. When I am given liberty, I place more of an emphasis on their ‘cat-ness.’ Sometimes, even make them a bit scary. But I think it’s more important to connect with the stories – to match the theme of the work rather than focus on the details of the cat itself. Moreover, because I have been with cats since my childhood, they are special creatures to me. Compared to fish or insects, they have clear emotions. In that sense also, I have a sort of emotional attachment to cats that I can rely on. When I was younger, I didn’t think cats could become a motif within my work because I felt too close to them. I didn’t think I could treat them as, well, a form of art. But as I got older, I had trouble deciding what to paint. So I started painting cats and other things familiar to me – things that I was personally attached to. Then it got easier and easier. I don’t have to think about how difficult something is when I paint it, I just directly express the world in my imagination.”
– Are there any artists who have influenced you?
“There are way too many, I can’t name just one. But I especially think Kusama Yayoi is great. She’s both popular and malicious at the same time. No matter how big she becomes in the international art scene, she maintains her position as an isolated artist. I also love manga artists such as Ito Junji and Umezu Kazuo. Their consistency of world view and the messages they try to convey always touch my heart. As for Mr. Ito, I was shocked when I saw his serialized manga in the magazine titled ‘Spirits.’ I tried not to look at his work too much because I was worried that I would become overly influenced. Now, I’ve actually become friends with his wife, Ishiguro Ayako. So I end up asking for his autograph every time I see him (laughs). I guess I am indeed overly influenced!”
—- You are participating in the visual part of the ‘PARTY SALE’ event that starts on May 23rd at Shibuya PARCO.
“Yuya from MELANTRICK FEMLIGHET requested that I create an ‘idol’ group of cats. In fact, this is a very interesting idea I would never have come up with on my own. I made a list of cats that have idol-class cuteness and showed it to Yuya. I snuck in a photo of Boris (laughs) and got caught right away. However, he made Boris the leader of the group. Just like human idol groups, each member has a set of characteristics. For example, ‘this kitten is like ‘everyone’s little sister,’ or stuff like that.”
– The cats you paint all have their own characteristics and stories. Yet, at the same time, they also have this kind of anonymity that makes us feel that they are our own cats.
“I paint cats the cats that you find anywhere – from Japanese breeds to crossbreeds. That’s probably why. Unless I have a particular request, I don’t use a model. But then again, I have recently used my friends cats, such as Sabami, Tenmaru, and Ton-ichi. In such cases I use photographs or try to copy their characteristics.”
– What fascinates you the most about cats?
“That’s a tough question. As for Boris, I think the more troublesome he becomes, the cuter he gets. He comes to me every three hours even if I’m asleep. But that’s what’s good about him. After he’s gone to the bathroom, he comes running back to me and shows me his butt. I guess he wants me to lick it clean? (laughs) I pat him around his butt and he gets satisfied and leaves. Maybe he thinks I’m his mom. He is very aggressive and wants a lot of attention, but all that is just a part of Boris’ charm.”